Chow Town

Desire to eat barbecue from across the country leads to American Royal sauce competition

Chow Town is barbecue sauce heaven.
Chow Town is barbecue sauce heaven.

“I wish somebody would tell me what Ditty-Wah-Ditty means,” sang Ry Cooder in the style of singer and songwriter Arthur “Blind” Blake.

I listened to that song on Cooder’s “Paradise & Lunch” album one hot August Saturday while reading about 80 barbecue joints I thought I’d never get to visit. It made me hungry.

Since I couldn’t afford the time and money to go all over the country eating barbecue, I decided to contact the proprietors and ask them to ship me a sample of their sauce, prepaid.

The more I thought about it, I decided why not buy a bunch more sauces locally and make it a contest. Recruiting friends and neighbors and colleagues to judge would make it a fun event.

What to call it? The song that was playing when the inspiration hit me was perfect. Thus, the “Diddy-Wa-Diddy National Barbecue Sauce Contest” was born. I changed the spelling from Mr. Blake’s. Since then, I’ve seen it spelled both ways.

The premier event, featuring more than 100 sauces, was Oct. 13, 1984 — a Saturday — in our backyard patio in Roeland Park. The next year it was at the Prairie Center in Olathe, raising funds to preserve that prairie for education, recreation and wildlife instead of residential or industrial development.

The third contest was on a rainy day at Crown Center to benefit the MS Society. One of our judges that year was the late Joe McGuff, editor of The Kansas City Star. McGuff told me, “You should put these sauces in lidded containers.” They were in numbered Styrofoam cups. From then on the sauces have been put in lidded plastic squeeze bottles, thanks to him.

In 1987, the contest found a permanent home at the American Royal Barbecue. It happened when the late Jack Kay, president of Polaris Electronics and chair of the American Royal Barbecue back then, changed the early November weekend of the meat contest to the same day as the Diddy-Wa-Diddy.

I called him to explain that the sauce contest date was set to not conflict with the Royal Barbecue. He said, “Let’s talk.”

We met at Chili’s on Metcalf over ribs and coffee. Two hours later we shook hands on our mutual decision to marry the Diddy-Wa-Diddy with the American Royal Barbecue. The Diddy-Wa-Diddy name was eventually changed — I guess it sounded too serious — to American Royal International Barbecue Sauce, Rub & Baste Contest. The Diddy-Wa-Diddy Barbecue Sauce Store, brainchild of Steve Katz, pays tribute to the original name.

Thanks to a dedicated group of volunteers, the sauce contest has benefited many charities, boosted sales of contest winners and for me, it has opened up a fascinating adventure of fun, barbecue roadtrips, a writing career and local, national and international friendships.

Some say Diddy-Wa-Diddy is barbecue heaven, where you can sit on a curb and get anything you want. If that’s what it means, I look forward to being there. Meanwhile, Chow Town’s barbecue is heaven enough for me.

For information on judging or entering your sauce in this year’s contest, click here

Ardie Davis is an iconic figure in the barbecue community. He founded a sauce contest on his backyard patio in 1984 that became the American Royal International Barbecue Sauce, Rub & Baste contest. He is a charter member of the Kansas City Barbeque Society and an inductee into the KCBS’s Hall of Flame. He has been interviewed on numerous food shows and writes for a variety of barbecue-related publications. He is also the author of a number of barbecue books, His most recent release book is “America’s Best BBQ Homestyle: What Champions Cook in Their Own Backyards.”